Deckard (Jason Statham) and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) in 'The Fate of the Furious.' Universal Pictures

The first race in a new “Fast and the Furious” movie is typically stripped down and basic, reestablishing the series’ street racing ethos before the expensive cars and intelligence agencies show up. It’s the scene where “The Fate of the Furious” gets to prove it still cares about cars. If it can handle the quarter-mile head-to-head, we’ll follow into over-the-top stuff to come.

Instead, the opening street race in “The Fate of the Furious,” through the streets of Havana, is one of the worst scenes in a “Fast and Furious” movie since the series’ “2 Fast 2 Furious” nadir. Not only is it a complete mess of CGI, but every moment of actual street racing looks over-cranked, like when they speed the film up in a 70s car chase. It seems obvious — in a way big-budget, mainstream movies rarely are — just how boring the car footage would be to watch in its raw form. The race ends with Dominic Toretto eking out a photo finish while in reverse gear before letting the loser keep his car. “Your respect is enough,” he says, indulging the bizarre deification of Vin Diesel the series has been edging toward for years. It’s a bad start that “The Fate of the Furious” eventually outpaces, but not by much.

At least since since “Fast Five,” the “Fast and Furious” movies have been intensely aware of their own formula. The theme is family and the action top-notch, inserting cars in action scenarios where cars don’t usually go. Neither side of the equation can be allowed to wink, no matter how big or cheesy it gets. Emotions are to be played directly, in dead earnestness, imparting a melodramatic flavor to every punch, rev and wisecrack (“John Wick” stole part of this scheme, playing to a maximally-heightened dramatic emotion without cynicism). But while “The Fate of the Furious” has all the pieces, it maneuvers them clumsily.

The death of Paul Walker has left the ensemble without a center. It’s not that Brian was ever a compelling character, nor is he particularly missed here, but Walker’s presence throughout the series kept Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) in a secondary mentorship/patriarch position, an Obi-Wan to Walker’s Luke.

Despite betraying the team and essentially becoming the antagonist, Dom is very much the main character of “The Fate of the Furious.” While his tortured saint act was always a little tedious — in “Furious 7” Dom felt more like a cult leader than a father figure — “The Fate of the Furious” doesn’t have anyone to step up. Despite Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) long history with the franchise, she feels mostly secondary here. The weird attempt to replace Paul Walker with Scott Eastwood fails (somehow they found someone even less charismatic than Lucas Black in “Tokyo Drift”). Which leaves Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) responsible for holding the screen together. As always, Johnson’s charisma fixes a great deal, but turning “The Fast and Furious” into “The Rock Show” feels like a waste of what should be a fantastic ensemble.

If you can get over how he murdered Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang), the addition of Deckard (Jason Statham) to the crew is one of “The Fate of the Furious’” best moves. The goony Hobbs and Deckard relationship, which turns from prison banter one-upmanship to brotherly competitiveness, is one of the rare improvements in the “family” dynamic. Both their headbutting friction and their big jailbreak action sequence avoids the plodding saccharine phoniness of Dom’s tormented heart. And while Statham was his usual unbreakable tough guy character in “Furious 7,” he’s something very different here. Typically, Statham is the brute, but fighting alongside Hobbs, whose favorite move is punching people across rooms, Statham becomes balletic. He slides across the floor and jumps up walls, the Wolverine to Johnson’s Colossus (“rubber bullets, big mistake,” he says, shrugging off gunfire). But it’s disastrous that a promised fist fight between the two never materializes.

Still, their jailhouse riot is one of the better action scenes in “The Fate of the Furious,” in spite of new series’ director F. Gary Gray’s penchant for shooting everything tight and shaky, like it’s the early 2000s all over again and everyone thinks they’re Paul Greengrass. Other scenes are big and bold, but often sloppy, particularly the over-long end sequence across a Russian ice field. Unless you’ve been eagerly awaiting “Fast and Furious” to have its own “Die Another Day” entry, the climax is a real bummer, even if it feels a little more practical than sequences of video game noise (like a dull early car chase involving a wrecking ball).

The New York action in the middle of the movie is a lot better. A combination of grappling hooks, an armada of remote-controlled driverless cars and Dom (wearing a horror movie mask) shrugging off machine gun fire with a giant shield heightens “The Fate of the Furious” into the popcorn realms that should have been its resting heart rate. Another late-movie scene, once again involving Deckard, is another highlight. Despite its lack of top-notch brawlers on the villain side — “Fast & Furious 6” and “Furious 7” had between them Gina Carano, Kim Kold, Joe Taslim and Tony Jaa, while “Fate” has only Kristofer Hivju — the punching still mostly works.

Maybe you’ve noticed that there’s been no real discussion of the plot. It can be summed up simply: “The Fate of the Furious” is about hacking the planet. The family is opposed by Cipher (Charlize Theron), a cyber terrorist (“Even Anonymous won’t mess with her!”) with her own spy plane.

Theron should be a good get for the series, but Cipher’s main role is to explain Dom’s own thematic struggles to him. “It’s not for you, this whole saving the world, Robin Hood nonsense, it’s bullshit,” she tells Dom. But it’s utter affectation, since Diesel never once gives any indication he’d prefer a life of crime. There’s zero illusion that Dom has actually betrayed his friends, so what’s the point? Instead, he goes along with betraying his friends because Cipher has something to hold over his head (would it surprise you to learn it has something to do with family?).

When Cipher is not explaining Dom’s narrative journey to him, she’s explaining it to us. “You’re team is about to go up against the only thing they can’t handle… you,” she says to Dom. Beyond a source of exposition, Cipher is a crime lord without a crime in mind. She steals an EMP device and gets her hands on some nukes, but for no clear reason. “Accountability,” she says, even though “Fate of the Furious,” for all its world-hopping, relentlessly avoids any hint of the geopolitical (Russians are involved, but of the “crazy separatist” variety).

But the real problem with the character is that she’s a hacker. Hacking is the worst trend in movie storytelling since found footage. It’s visually inert — there’s never anything worth watching on a computer screen and no way to make rapid keyboarding exciting. Both Cipher and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel of “Game of Thrones”), the super hacker added to the cast in “Furious 7,” have to spend part of the climax as frantic typists. Since they’re hacking and counter-hacking, which means absolutely nothing, the only option for dramatic flux is to match keyboard button presses to shouted lines like “smart… but not smart enough!” or “Oh, she’s good!”

Hacking becomes a constant storytelling cheat, allowing good guys and bad guys to take their next narrative steps in a sentence of technobabble. When every new sequence or location is motivated by a computer telling them to go there, what’s the point of plot at all? There’s something funny in “The Fate of the Furious” stealing gibberish from 90s movies (it was already a joke in 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard”), but it almost always detracts from action scenes, literally pulling punches.

Like hacking, so much of “The Fate of the Furious” feels like a cheat. Rather than actually figuring out Letty and Dom’s relationship, “Fate” explodes it. The family dynamic at the series core feels more cynical than heartfelt here, stuffing in more and more characters rather than giving them compelling interactions. For example, “The Fate of the Furious” is pretty funny, but largely through sheer volume. As a director, Gray doesn’t seem much better at comic timing than he does with action, relentlessly killing jokes with over-explanation and dead air. “The Fate of the Furious” is as big and silly as ever — it’s always been a “see what sticks” series — but it no longer values itself. “The Fast and the Furious” used to know how to street race for pink slips. Now it just spins its expensive wheels.